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I often tell myself to go easier on free games when reviewing them, but then I come across something like Love In Space's visual novel Homeward and think, "Well I can't give this a free pass, because I can think of at least one other free VN released at the same time period that did a much better job telling its story in every way."
While it brings some genuinely great ideas and cute moments to the table, this is a VN that mostly lacks tact when dealing with its subject matter, and it has a severe tone problem.
Speaking of which, let's briefly recap the narrative: after his parents divorced when he was around ten years old, a boy named Riku leaves Japan to travel the world with his diplomat father while his mother continued to live with his younger sister Sora in Japan.
Eight years later, his mother is sick in the hospital, and so the two relocate to Japan from America to take care of Sora until she is well again. Riku has no idea that his father has no intention of remaining in Japan, until he returns one night from the school festival and finds his mother at their home.
In the meantime, Riku and Sora go to high school together, trying to reconnect despite apparently not really remembering each other from their childhood years. They also meet up with Riku's first childhood friend Nonami and get introduced to Nonami's best friend Haruka. When it eventually comes time for Riku to get ready for his trip back to America, he has to figure out how to best deal with something so frustrating and beyond his control, while also exploring his friendships/relationships with these three girls.
I like Riku's backstory; it's not everyday you get a character (in this case, two, considering Sora) that has to put up with negligent parents who never want to have a heart-to-heart with their children, and the fact that he can never build proper bonds with people because of constantly having to move to a new country.
While he's not the most compelling of characters, and can also be rather dramatic, I nevertheless think Riku is relatively likeable. I definitely found myself sympathizing with his situation. There are several really good quotes in this VN about accepting your fate while also cherishing the memories you have with people who you find that truly care about you, and who will always remember you no matter where you go and what you do with your life. Sure, he might not seemingly have a choice now, but he'll soon realize how much control he may actually have over his life...
He also gets to have a couple nice and even witty conversations with our heroines, who are also generally amiable. Actually, how about we jump right into their routes?
Quick note: you only have to make choices — which are pretty easy when wanting to lock onto a particular heroine — in the common route; each girl's route only has one ending, so you can just sit back and read them through afterwards.
- Nonami: As a whole, I liked her route the least. There were times when everyone acted seriously out of character, and there were some needlessly cringe-worthy moments that killed the mood for me. She can be a little annoying at times, but she's a champ when she needs to be (and that goes for all the routes), and she's the most realistically portrayed of the three. She acts like how any flighty and rambunctious schoolgirl might, but she's also emotional and kindhearted. She makes mistakes, but she owns up to them and will do anything she can to make things right again.
- Haruka: In terms of pacing and twists, I think her route was the best written. I do like how sweet and dedicated she is, but I do nonetheless think she was a bit too much and probably the "thirstiest" out of the three. Much like Nonami, she'll admit when she's not handling things properly and try to mend ties not just between herself and Riku, but also with the other girls.
- Sora: Oh boy. This is a difficult route to talk about without spoiling anything, so bear with me. At first, I was enjoying it, but then there was this cop out near the ending that really pissed me off. To those who've played Homeward: what was that, and why bring it up then? Incest is a touchy topic that I'm not about to get into here, and this was a heavy route, but it did make me feel sorry for and understand Riku and Sora's situation.
In a way, they were both missing familial, romantic and — for a time, in their minds — friendship love, so they were trying to be all these things for each other. I think this route would've been much more powerful if that big reveal didn't happen (any guesses yet as to what I'm talking about?), and if the parents were heavily involved. As much as suicide saddens me, I might even go so far as to say that even if they were to attempt it, it would maybe wake the parents up and have them realize they need to consider the feelings and well being of their children before it's too late.
Maybe a Romeo and Juliet-type angle where a possible death might create a great impact in that sense could've been effective here. But even if you were to take the romance out, I think it could've worked just as well if not better. I just think not having a fully realized family dynamic in this route was a wasted opportunity (you only ever see the father in Nonami's route, for heaven's sakes), especially when Riku's entire fate — and by extension, Sora's — was dictated by their parents. But honestly, there was no point to this route being about "forbidden love" when you take into consideration the ending.
Overall, the developer felt the serious yet unnecessary need to add in random twists, cliches, and contrivances, all of which caused the stories to derail in terms of pacing and atmosphere. The drama becomes all for naught at times. The mood swings will cause stomachs to churn, especially where Riku is concerned. It also didn't help that the music, while lovely, oftentimes didn't match the situation.
In a way, I wish there was more time spent with these characters given you're only dealing with three, and the routes could've included at least one more ending each for other possibilities. But at the same time, I'm glad this VN was short. Especially with regards to Nonami's route, I just wanted it all to end when I saw where things were going at points. It was all just plain awkward. I was, truth be told, more entertained by the common route than the heroines' actual routes.
The character sprites are showing their age, but the art style is adorable for the most part. Many of the CGs were poorly drawn and even repeated in a few instances, but several pretty ones stuck out. The backgrounds are mainly just photoshopped photos. It really just feels like a standard Ren'Py VN from an aesthetic point of view. One thing I really loved though were the funny, "kawaii chibi"-inspired animations. They brought a smile to my face, considering how many forced perverted and "comical" moments this thing had.
This is one of those mediocre games with legitimately enjoyable stuff scattered around in it. I'd say play through one of the routes, and then decide if you'd want to continue. It's free for all computer platforms. But in all honesty, there are so many other VNs out there that are a better use of your time and brain cells.